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“Careers in Food: First in a Series”

As a career changer (I was a lawyer and now, well, I'm not), I am often approached by people looking to find a way into the food business. It's not easy, but it can be done. The thing about this industry is that there are a myriad of possible career choices beyond—from food writer, to chef, to food stylist, recipe tester, and many more.

In a series of occasional posts, we're going to introduce you to people who have found a place in the food industry. Hopefully these stories will not only inspire you, but will give you a good array of career choices so you too can find a way into the industry that we all adore.

If you are currently working in the industry and would like to tell us your story, write to us at andrea@thestrongbuzz.com and maybe we'll feature you!

Our first interview is by The Strong Buzz's Susan Kane Walkush who got together with Kamille Adamany, the Senior Manager for Restaurant Operations at American Girl Place. She oversees seven restaurants across the country, each located within an American Girl Place store. (For those who don’t know any girls under 12, American Girl Place has been an unstoppable phenomenon since it opened its first store in 1998.)

She talked to Kamille about opening and running multiple restaurants, how she got her start, and what it’s like to get a good review in the New York Times.

SKW: What is your role exactly?

KA: I oversee the restaurant division for American Girl (currently that includes seven locations: in New York, Chicago, LA, Atlanta, Dallas, Boston, and Minneapolis). In my role I am in charge of everything from menu planning, purchasing, management hiring, marketing, P&L's . . . really everything in or about the restaurants is my responsibility. (And, I have a lot of help!)

SKW: What is it like in the restaurant of such a popular place?

KA: Because it is a destination place, there is a lot of build-up for the girls and their families so the reactions when they actually arrive are sometimes pretty outrageous.  I have definitely seen girls lose it when they walk in the doors.  They're so excited they don't know what to do with themselves.  There's a huge expectation -- it's expensive, maybe they've traveled to get there -- for the parents. So often it's a birthday and the mom wants it to be perfect and I don't blame here, but . . . we've seen it all. People often comment on what great behavior the girls are on when they get to the restaurant.  Then there's the random angry 11 year old boy and that's the most entertaining for me. I've threatened to take their photo on my cell phone and post it on Facebook.

SKW: Can you give some background on American Girl Place generally?

KA: American Girl Place is an experiential retail store. It started with three locations: Chicago (which opened in 1998), New York (2003) and LA (2006). The concept began with Pleasant Rowland, and her original idea was based on her experience going into the city with her mom, having tea, seeing a live orchestra, and shopping. Originally these three stores had tearooms, live theaters (now gone), and shopping. In addition to shopping for American Girl products, girls can also experience the dining rooms (where they eat with their dolls who sit at tiny high chairs attached to the table), the hair salons where their dolls get their hair done, and a photo studio where they can get their picture taken. In 2007, we started a new concept of smaller, more casual stores and restaurants. Since then we've done back to back openings in Atlanta, Dallas, Boston, and Minneapolis.

SKW: Tell us about running restaurant operations in multiple locations. Is each location geared toward the regional food of that area? Are there differences in each location?

KA: Originally, we had hoped to have more regional items on our menus. But, our audience is kids and we found that kids want the same thing no matter where they are. Kids know what they want to eat and we want them to have a memorable experience, not try to force something that doesn't interest them, and one that their moms can enjoy, too.

SKW: So what do kids want?

KA: The vast majority of kids want plain pasta and chicken tenders, so we offer these (and other kid-friendly menu choices) but we try to make them fun and appealing and healthier. We serve everything with fresh fruit and fresh veggies and in kid-size portions. Our menus offer lots of choices -- they get to pick their entrees and their sides. Our goal is to surprise and delight our guests, even with the most seemingly mundane foods. We'll serve melon and starfruit cut into hearts and star shapes and served on skewers, instead of a bowl of cut mushy fruit. And there will be a ramekin of yogurt with it. Kids also love anything mini -- mini hotdogs, miniburgers, little cookies, things to dip, so we do those. Our pizza is a square "Tic Tac Toe Pizza with red pepper x's and pepperoni o's.”

SKW: What do the moms say?

KA: We often hear from moms that they are surprised the food is so good. You could take that in a negative way, but I know what they mean and it is a great compliment! So many kids’ restaurants have really bad food and nothing that adults would want to eat. Our menus are split between kid-centric and adult-centric choices. Our adult choices are definitely geared toward moms (vs. dads...although there are a few!). Lots of salads, fish, chicken, sandwiches, etc. But mostly they are happy to find that our menus are appropriate to our audience yet not the run-of-the-mill kids’ menu. Ultimately, they want their girls to have a great time but they also want them to eat! We hear from moms that it's fun but it's also special. We are all here for the girls and we know our audience. The girls come more for the experience. They bring their dolls, and the dolls sit in their little highchairs and get micromuffins served to them. The dining room is decorated for girls -- my life is pink -- but moms can eat healthy, good food too, like salads and fish.

SKW: Before you started at American Girl, did you have a background in food geared toward children?

KA: No, not at all. I started out at L'Etoile in Madison, Wisconsin, and Pleasant Rowland was a client. In 1998 she asked me to help develop the concept for the first store in Chicago. In 1998 it was a really cutting-edge idea. Now many department stores do this sort of thing, but then it was completely new. We made tons of mistakes at the beginning. At first we thought it would be more of a 1950s tearoom, with tuna salad in tomatoes, that sort of thing. But it didn't work. So we learned not to try and change what kids like. But we also learned you don't have to slap a chicken tender on a plate with fries. We take the basics and make it better, fresher, and more fun.

SKW: I know L'Etoile is a destination restaurant in Madison -- what exactly was your prior restaurant experience?

KA: I started at L'Etoile doing whatever they needed -- I had no restaurant experience and wanted to learn the restaurant industry. From there I became the host, then maitre' d and then manager. Then I moved to Chicago to open the store there, and then I moved to New York in 2005 to open the New York store.

SKW: I remember right when American Girl Place opened in New York, it got a wonderful write-up in the New York Times from Julia Moskin. She gave a great review of the food, calling it "more reminiscent of Chanterelle than Chuck E. Cheese's." Did that impact you? Did it impact how you run the restaurant?

KA: The article didn't really influence what we did, but it sort of validated the restaurant's reputation. She noticed the diversity in the dining room and said it's expensive but it brings girls from all over the country. At the time, it was new and people were taking vacations to New York just to come to American Girl Place.

SKW: Were you nervous when you knew she was coming to review the restaurant?

KA: Nervous? I was terrified. We were a midwestern company and coming to New York was a huge deal. We heard a lot about how downtown moms would never come. But what the article showed is that you have to appreciate it for what it is. Some people don't care, but [Julia Moskin] came in with an open mind. There was another prominent writer in New York [Nick Paumgarten from the New Yorker] who came and really didn't appreciate what we were doing. He was snarky. We're not a culinary mecca. We're trying to cater to 8 year old girls. And Julia Moskin was open to it.

SKW: There has been a rise in interest in child-centered food, especially cookbooks, or even the Williams-Sonoma catalog hawking products for kids in the kitchen. What are your thoughts on children's eating habits? Does it have to be so different from what their parents eat?

KA: I love that there's new interest in food and kids. If kids spend time in the kitchen, that's great. In my opinion, the more kids know about what they are eating and where their food comes from, the better. In my house, the kids eat what we eat but I know plenty of parents with kids who just won't do that. I don't have the answers as to why...I probably have just been really lucky (and yes, I do cut our fruit into stars and sandwiches into hearts every once in a while). American Girl Place has always done cooking demonstrations and kids love to get their hands dirty. We love to see that interest. It's nice to see it's gotten even bigger.

SKW: What do you see in your future? Five years from now?

KA: What I love about my job is that we make people really, really happy. That's why I love working in restaurants. It's a direct, healthy way to make people happy. So, I hope, five years from now, to still be in restaurants.

SKW: What is it like running restaurants under a corporate umbrella? Do you have a lot of creative input? Are their limits?

KA: The biggest thing is we don't have the individual pressure of making the rent. There are layers of support. But, we also don't have the flexibility. I've been fortunate in getting the creativity I want, but it takes a lot longer to change your marketing plan or whatever. But, there's huge support and resources. A marketing team, an operations team, etc.

SKW: Has the recession affected your restaurants?

KA: It has of course, but fortunately less so than others because this is a unique experience and there's no other option if you want to go to American Girl Place. People come from shorter distances now (they used to come across the country for a 9th birthday), and they don't always buy the extras, but they're still coming and we're fortunate. We appreciate each seat that's filled and we always try to think of new, creative ways to bring people in.

SKW: Do you get outside chefs involved?

KA: We are always looking for new ideas and we do not currently have a corporate chef, so we look for outside culinary partnerships. We have worked with different chefs to help develop recipes and different concepts. Now we are speaking with a couple of people about collaborating.

SKW: Any advice for people seeking entry into the food industry? Either young people or career changers?

KA: If you want to open your own restaurant, it's so damn hard. I would caution people to really understand it's such hard work, you're on the opposite schedule from everyone else. Just talk to people. But, it's really rewarding and it's rare in a job to make so many people happy every day. I see so many resumes. Don't overstate your qualifications. It's obvious. I often go for people that have not much experience but a lot of passion. I got two huge breaks in my career, so I try to do that for people. Also, understand that you'll have to start at the bottom. There are lots of cooks out there and restaurants are having trouble. My husband [now an executive chef] started as a dishwasher. There are a lot of ways to be in the food industry, in the field you're passionate about. My job is unique but I work for a company that is not a restaurant company that happens to have 7 restaurants in it. I'm a great example of how you can be in the food business and don't have to be in the kitchen.

—Susan Kane Walkush

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